Diving Into Jenna Szerlag's Life by Erin Spiller
From the quietest place on Earth to the mysterious world beneath the waves, there is no mistaking this photographer’s passion for exploring, creating, and sharing.
“I think what drives me most is the solitude.” Jenna Szerlag is an adventurous Maui-based photographer whose work has been published by the likes of National Geographic Creative and Forbes magazine. Her enthusiasm towards capturing underwater creatures, vibrant sunsets, and cascading waterfalls is unparalleled; and although her career has taken her around the world, it is her home in Hawaii that inspires her most.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get bored.” says Jenna. As a landscape, underwater, and nature photographer, whether she is bringing the world beneath the waves to life or exploring the island she calls home, everything is inspirational.
Sunsets have been her latest fascination, enticing her to explore the vast beaches and capture the rich colors painted across the open sky. “I just want to capture the clouds and the drama because we usually just have the blue skies- and I say just, I mean, the blue skies are amazing. This is what keeps me here,” she laughs.
But capturing the essence of Maui goes beyond exclusively photographing sunsets and beaches, and her love for photographing the island has often taken her deep into the wilderness to unexpectedly beautiful locations.
“It’s not all palm trees,” she says. The island may be known for its blue skies and endless beaches, but Maui is also home to Haleakalā Volcano, whose peak is occasionally covered in ice and snow despite being only a two-hour drive from the sunny seaside town of Kihei. “It’s freezing up there,” Jenna says. She lives at the base of the 10, 023ft dormant volcano in Kihei, a town where summer temperatures average 90ºF “...and I can drive up there and be cold,” she says with a note of nearly incredulous delight. Jenna often drives upcountry, a local term to describe trekking up the volcano, to experience the cooler temperatures and see the redwood forests that grow at around six to seven thousand feet elevation. The Haleakalā slopes are home to thousands and thousands of acres of the trees, only further illustrating Maui as an island of natural, geographical wonders: a photographer’s dream.
Haleakalā National Park encompasses over thirty thousand acres of Maui, including Haleakalā Crater, a popular tourist destination.
It’s known to be the quietest place on Earth.
“I’ve probably spent almost forty nights inside the crater, photographing the night stars, sunrises, sunsets…” Passion lights up her face as she describes chasing rainbows amidst the red cinder cones of the crater. “We were packing up from camping one night to head out on a nine mile trek across the crater, and there was a rainbow forming,” Jenna laughs as she recalls the story. “I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t packed up or anything but I grabbed my tripod and camera and I heard my friend say ‘Uh, she- she’s gone. She just- she’s running.’”
“I was just running down the trail to try to get the shot,” she laughs again, “and that’s one of my favorite shots ever.”
Jenna’s tales are woven adventure and passion. There is no question that she is driven by the love of her craft, even if it means hiking deep within the Hawaiian rain forest to some secluded waterfall accessible only by swimming across a river.
“There are no paths,” she says, “so carrying all the gear -you have ten thousand dollars worth of gear- you’re holding it on your head and hoping that you’re not going to fall in this waist-deep water. (...) You drive out there and you have no idea what the water levels are going be like, so it’s gauging whether you’re actually going to do that hike or if you’re going to have to postpone it to who knows when- months out.”
But Jenna isn’t fazed by the changes and delays that accompany the unpredictable. “When you get to that destination, never mind even getting that shot… it’s pretty amazing.”
And she has certainly seen some pretty amazing sights, having traveled to Croatia, Normandy and Italy for above-water photography; and to Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Philippines for underwater photography. “I have been a diver since 2001, became a master diver in 2006,” she describes scuba diving as the reason she initially moved to Hawaii and subsequently became interested in underwater photography, “I just wanted to show people that don’t have the chance to see the places that I’ve seen and to be in the places that I am able to go… I just wanted to show everyone what it’s like out there. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity.”
Sharing her images with the locals and tourists -her audience- is as important as taking the photograph itself. Though she travels often, Jenna most often photographs Maui to preserve and document the history and landscape of the island as it undergoes dramatic changes; such as the time when the 144 year old cane sugar era came to an end in 2016.
“I can’t help but hope the natural landscape will continue in the agricultural direction.” She says, having spent weeks photographing the last of the cane fields during their early morning harvests. Born and raised on a New England dairy farm, it is clear that documenting the end of such an influential era was paramount for Jenna as well as Hawaii.
“I try to keep it as natural and as real as possible.” She says of her photography style. “I really hope that it portrays what I see.”
Catching a glimpse into her world is like looking into a kaleidoscope: the colors are vivid and painterly, giving life to the image with swathes of burning oranges and lush greens. Photographing a single sunrise often necessitates a weekend trip of camping and waking hours before dawn to hike three or four hours to reach the destination.
Jenna has hiked, dived, and explored every island in Hawaii. She has stopped her vehicle to photograph an engorged river overflowing over a cliff’s edge in pouring rain, risking everything to capture the waterfalls. “It was just so gorgeous because it was raining so hard.” She reminisces, “I just lifted up the towel and got some shots as fast as I could, I think in about thirty or forty seconds, the towel was just soaked and I had to run.”
“With my camera in my hand, nothing else matters.” She smiles. Behind Jenna Szerlag’s colorful sunsets, sprawling landscapes, and breathtaking underwater images are tales of adventure, dedication and inspiration.
"Her talent is an art and a skill to be highly recognized and commended. Thank you Jenna for sharing your amazing talent with all of us.” - Anne H. Kahului, Maui
As a long time Hawaii resident, Jenna moved to Maui in 2002 to pursue her interest in diving. Discovering the beauty of the islands and the desire to show it to the world led Jenna into her passion for nature photography. She studied film photography before pursuing an education in hands on workshops and conferences with respected educators mastering the camera topside before taking her photography underwater.
Jenna is a certified Hawaii Marine Naturalist and is currently an editor for the Underwater Photography Guide. Her images are available as art decor prints and have been published in magazines, calendars and several other publications. You can find more of her underwater images on Instagram @seaofphotos
*Please contact Jenna directly if you are interested in licensing an image for commercial use.
Publications and Credits
Forbes Magazine, Bank of Hawaii, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Creative, Coastal Living Magazine, Hawaii Active, MSN, Trip Savvy, Makena Magazine, Maui No Ka Oi Magazine, Lonely Planet, Outreach Ecology, ABC Stores Calendars, Microsoft Bing, Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center, Salted Line, Better Homes & Gardens, ICBF Hawaii, Sunset Magazine, Buzz, East Maui Watershed Partnership, Getty Images, Ikelite, Maui Arts & Cultural Center Schaefer Gallery, Wailea Magazine, Hawaii Longs Calendars, Sea Slugs of Hawaii, Edward Jones Kahului, Malama Wao Akua, US News, Huffington Post, Fine Art America, Wailea Health & Wellness Center, WHERE Magazine